Agency for Change – Noah Teitelbaum, Executive Director of Empowering Education » KidGlov

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Welcome to Agency For Change. The podcast that brings you the stories of people creating positive change in the world. We explore what inspires these change makers, the work they’re doing, and how they share their message. Each of us can play a part in change. And these are the people who show us how.

Lyn Wineman
Hi everyone. This is Lyn Wineman, founder and chief strategist of KidGlov. And welcome to another episode of Agency for Change podcast.

Lyn Wineman
Now, most of us remember where we were during the 9/11 terrorist attack. Today’s guest, Noah Teitelbaum, was teaching in a New York City classroom. His experience led him down a path to sharing the practice of social emotional learning and mindfulness curriculum as the Executive Director of Empowering Education.

Lyn Wineman
Noah, it’s great to have you here today. How are you?

Noah Teitelbaum
I’m doing well. So glad to be here with you.

Lyn Wineman
Fantastic. Noah, would you start by sharing more about that story? I can’t imagine what it would be like to be teaching in New York City on that day.

Noah Teitelbaum
Well, it is a day I will not forget, and it was about a week into my first year of teaching 5th grade or teaching at all, really. Anyone who’s listening who is a schoolteacher knows how difficult the first year or two is when you’re a new teacher. The dropout rate is high, and I almost was a part of that statistic. That day, I remember the Dean knocking on my classroom door. I opened it up and he said, “Mr. T, do not let the kids out of the room.” “What’s going on?” “They’re attacking.” They’re attacking the city.

Noah Teitelbaum
At that moment, I very clearly had this thought, “I’m dreaming.” And then I turned around and I looked at my kids and I could tell that this is not a dream. And I don’t usually tell people this, I’ve told this story a lot because it’s a motivating part of what I do and why I do it. But the next thought I had, and I’m slightly embarrassed, is “I’m going to get the day off.” I was so overwhelmed by what I was doing, that that is the second thought I had.

Lyn Wineman
Wow.

Noah Teitelbaum
And that was not the most difficult day of the year, I often tell people. It was also a day when I saw that I did not know what I was doing… I got that message many times that year and the next year. And I still get that message from time to time. But that year I did not know how to handle the conversations that needed to happen. Part of that is, who can handle those conversations? We train, but so few of us are trained in even basic mental health. I really didn’t have the tools to help children through difficult moments, let alone myself. It was a powerful day for me and powerful two years in that school. I would not ask to do those years again, but they are some of the most important years I’ve ever lived through.

Lyn Wineman
Wow. Noah, I have three kids of my own and I just remember doing volunteer work and having a group of 5th grade aged kids for an hour and thinking, “Oh my goodness, I love their teachers.” because really, it’s very hard work. And on a day like that, I just can’t imagine. So, talk to me more. How did you take this impactful time, this difficult time, and take it into a business where you’re sharing social emotional learning and mindfulness with teachers and schools?

Noah Teitelbaum
Well, my career stayed in elementary and middle school for quite a while. After two years at that school, I was ready to go to law school. I had the acceptance letter and I thought, “I think this teaching stuff, I’d like to do it a little bit more just to try to get it right.” because I knew I had not done a good job. I found a school that was one of these higher performing charter schools called North Star. And I was lucky enough to get hired there and that’s where I learned to teach. I had a great assignment, which I thought was maybe terrible in my second year there, where I had the same math class to teach three times a day. And I thought “This is going to be so boring.” But it actually was the best part of my teaching career. I really learned to craft lessons and didn’t have to keep thinking of new content all day long. I just could work on the delivery.

Noah Teitelbaum
I went on to become an instructional coach. I know schools, tremendous schools, they get great results, but I also had in the back of my head, still, this feeling like I’m missing something. And a whole lot of those schools, is that they are very firm. Great teachers are firm, but those schools tend to be quite firm. And I felt like, “I don’t know if I would send my own child to this school.” That didn’t sit well with me. I know that they’ve done lots of work, but I did have that little something off. And I also was still quite angry.

Noah Teitelbaum
I think I went into therapy on day three of beginning teaching because it’s very stressful and we’re all very well put together people when we don’t have a lot of stress. Teaching really brought out a lot of things that I’m glad I got to wrestle with. I still felt like, “There’s something I’m not getting here.” I went on to work in adult education running a test prep company and helping build it and prep it. I really enjoyed working with adults because some of the issues that I had to confront weren’t getting pushed by adults. In the test prep world, that’s where I first learned about the connection between mindfulness and learning. We had this great teacher at Manhattan Prep, Logan Thompson, who brought in his own mindfulness work. I was head of the teachers of that company and we started developing trainings for students in mindfulness because test prep really stresses people out.

Noah Teitelbaum
And managing that anxiety, we realized, is incredibly important. Research shows that it has a positive impact on academics. So, that’s where I first saw that connection. Then when I finished working in that world and test prep and went on to take over Empowering Education, I was really drawn to this work because I thought “I could have used things like this when I was a teacher.” I try to build things that I think are really useful, not aspirational useful.

Lyn Wineman
That is really great. And when you talk about social emotional learning, I think I know what that means, but do you mind explaining it more in depth and talking a little bit more about what the benefits of it are?

Noah Teitelbaum
Well, social emotional learning is a broad category and it definitely sounds good, whatever it is. What it is generally considered now is defined by CASEL, an organizing body, and they have five competencies. Self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisions. Those are five big categories in themselves. Most of them are probably pretty self-explanatory. What does self-regulation mean? Calm down. Self-awareness, what am I feeling? Which is hard for many adults, definitely is for children. Social awareness is noticing what’s happening with the people around you. Relationship skills, how to meet people, how to build relationships, how to overcome conflict. That’s a big one. And decision-making, that’d be things like SMART goals, being thoughtful about what you do. The things you learn if you’re taking an explicit class, where we’re really implicitly talking about it, like the things you learned in marriage counseling. Like I statements, coping skills, how to have arguments in a healthy manner, in naming your feelings.

Noah Teitelbaum
Somehow am a little annoyed that I have to do this, but the benefits have shown that there’s an 11% increase in academic outcomes. And it’s important to say to people, but it’s also, “Don’t you just want to have a successful emotional social life?” Isn’t that also in itself, even if it wasn’t going to lead to a better score, isn’t that valuable, just to be a person who enjoys your life better and can navigate your challenges? Our program has been studied, and many others, and shown to have a positive impact on resilience, self-control, social competence, and more broadly these SEL has been shown to reduce some of the negative things that could happen in life.

Lyn Wineman
I think about what the world would be like if every kid had those tools in their toolbox. That’s pretty cool. I’m going to diverge just a little bit. At KidGlov, our operations director has mindfulness training. And every once in a while, she senses that it’s becoming a pressure cooker here and she’ll take us through an exercise. But I think maybe once you’ve got all the schools sold on this curriculum, you ought to think about a workplace curriculum. And I’m actually serious about that. I think particularly what we’re going through in 2020 with the pandemic and everything is changing, I think it could be really, really helpful as well.

Noah Teitelbaum
I love that idea. I could try. I just did a workshop on trauma-informed management. So we started figuring out, what did it look like to manage in a way that acknowledges that there’s lots of trauma in the workplace. People come with their own trauma. But I think you’re right. I think you’re onto something.

Lyn Wineman
Well, when you’re ready to start up that product line, you call me and I’ll help you test it out.

Noah Teitelbaum
I will. Perfect.

Lyn Wineman
Could you tell me actually, along those lines more about how your company, Empowering Education, delivers these tools to school systems? What does that look like?

Noah Teitelbaum
I’ll tell you the tools that we have and how we do it, but underneath it, the important thing is a concern that we have, which is that people buy programs and don’t use them. Atkins, it’s the biggest loss and waste. There is a big problem we’re trying to solve, which is how to help children and educators of personal learning. But our specific focus is, How do we make a program that is going to be used? That’s sort of our North Star. For us, that means making it very accessible, and that word has lots of meaning to us. All of our content is digitally delivered, which wasn’t very hard for us to pivot for COVID-19 because we already had our stuff online. We already had slides for other people to show, things like that.

Lyn Wineman
That is great. That was great timing on your part to have that all ready to go.

Noah Teitelbaum
Right? I would still choose not to have had COVID-19 come out. The other means of accessibility, having our program bilingual, having our program be tested in schools with lots of different kinds of kids, hiring people with different backgrounds so that we try to have it a diverse program or a culturally responsive one. And then, finally making it really easy to use. What we had in mind, for people listening who are also building things to try to help change, is to think about the hardest person to satisfy and build your product for that, or your program for that. In my mind, I thought, “Well, this is… Our program is social emotional learning with mindfulness in it. Who’s going to be the most, not into this?” And I pictured this older, set in her ways, teacher in the middle of the country, and I’m sure I’m just revealing all of my biases, which are completely unfounded.

Lyn Wineman
Noah, I have that teacher in my mind. As soon as you said that, I’m not going to say her name, but from my past, that’s exactly who I’m thinking of. She would not have liked this.

Noah Teitelbaum
Yeah. She would not have liked it. And maybe her principal said, “Here, you need to do this program.” she’s like, “Ugh” and so I thought, “Well she is…” And then there was another one, who’s younger and really stressed out and that is a little bit more me but milder. So those two people, I said, “You don’t have a lot of time and you’re not sure this is something you want to do. What can we build that you’ll do?” And they provided scripts, which I think, “I don’t want a script” but they want scripts. For the mindfulness, “Oh, mindfulness? That’s weird.” So, any reference, anything woo-woo, not in our program, we provide a recording, the children leading mindfulness.

Lyn Wineman
Wow.

Noah Teitelbaum
Lots of games and hands-on things. And for the young ones, we wrote children’s stories. Because children learn so well through books. That’s our program in a nutshell.

Lyn Wineman
That’s pretty diverse. That’s great to have all those different ways because there are so many different teachers and the teachers are the gatekeepers, aren’t they? Noah, what do you say to those then… Because obviously you just referenced it. What do you say to those who are skeptical about bringing this practice into a classroom?

Noah Teitelbaum
I’ll first say that I don’t run into that many people who are skeptical at this point. But I do hear that sometimes and I could see why someone would say that. Their job is to teach academics. I think the truth is that we are always teaching social and emotional learning whenever we are around children. We are modeling how to manage ourselves, how to manage others, manage our feelings, how to relate to others. We can’t help but be modeling these things. These are the ways we are with each other and with ourselves. We’re always teaching social and emotional learning. The question is, do we actually like what we’re teaching, if we stop and think about it?

Noah Teitelbaum
I hope that our program helps someone go, “This is what I want to teach.” Because we all end up making up stuff, too. Kids are going to get upset. Can’t help it. What do you say? “I just made up stuff?” So might as well get something at the research phase that they tried and honed and then hear the teacher actually say something useful. If you don’t have a vocabulary and a toolkit that’s been explicitly taught, it’s harder to be consistent with that and really have those ideas.

Lyn Wineman
And then you go into panic mode, and then maybe if it was a crisis with a small C, it gets bigger and bigger. Noah, you have a really unique background. You’ve been an educator, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a changemaker. You’re doing something really different. What is that experience like for you?

Noah Teitelbaum
I’m loving it. I love the variety of things I get to work on. Even when I was at a large company like Kaplan, I did my best to have a variety of things to work on. That’s what I enjoy. Last year I was working on a website, trying to develop partnerships and develop programming and write children’s stories. I love the variety that small organizations demand. What I like about running a nonprofit particularly, is that it’s clear as ever that providing value is success. And here, providing value is something that I need to be personally proud of, aligned with my values. I was in business school years ago and the most interesting class was one about corporate responsibility, corporate social responsibility. And the professor was very provocative, and he said providing value is social responsibility. It’s not our job to decide what the values are.

Noah Teitelbaum
So, whatever you can do to provide value is a good thing for the world. We had lots of arguments, Is providing unhealthy foods that people value a good thing for the world? But here I don’t have to argue as much about those things. I can really pour myself in. Personally, I don’t get fired up about competition with other companies or organizations, or putting checklists of our features versus theirs, and the best. So, just being able to really serve the people who I work with, it’s easy to pour myself in on that.

Lyn Wineman
That’s pretty neat. I was just doing some research. When you look at how much time we all spend at work at our jobs and you think about, if you can combine your talents with something that you’re passionate about and you know that you’re giving back, I just think that’s where the magic comes. And life is too short to go to a job that’s not fulfilling. I’m a big believer.

Noah Teitelbaum
I agree.

Lyn Wineman
Noah, I want to talk about some challenges that you’ve faced both in your work, but also as somebody who leads change and is doing something different in the world. What are those biggest challenges that you see?

Noah Teitelbaum
I like this question. I used to train teachers. And teaching is one of those things where you never feel like you’re done, mastered it. Maybe kind of like, “I’m pretty good at this” but there’s something you’re sort of trying to get better at. Once I started to see as the point of coaching is to try to get them to struggle with the next thing, like let’s get on to the right struggles. A new teacher who’s been struggling with, “How do I organize the day? How do I get them to do the things that they need to do?” But those teachers, I’m trying to get them to the next one, which is “When I’m teaching, how much should I give them and how much should I make them work for it?” Telling them, here’s how you divide versus some activity where they go, “Oh wait, I think I can split it up. Here’s how I’m going to divide.” But that takes a long time. And so, if not, what’s the right answer? There’s a tension. And you should sort of be stressed about the right tension.

Noah Teitelbaum
For our innovation, the right tension, I think, is something I mentioned earlier around how much do we meet teachers where they’re at, so that they use our program, and how much do we make it aspirational so that we pull them to what we think is a better expression of social emotional learning. An example right now is videos. A year ago, we decided we’re not going to make videos of our lessons. We want teachers to deliver these lessons and a lot of this is connecting, having conversation. COVID hit, we’re making videos.

Lyn Wineman
Yeah, you have to be nimble. Right? That’s a good point.

Noah Teitelbaum
But how?… Now we have these videos and I know that some people are just going to send out these videos and say I did my social emotional work. So how do we pull them a little bit to, well, can you do a shared journal? That’s the tension that I’m really excited about. And the challenge for our organization is we pivoted from working with a few schools very intensely to working with lots of schools that are providing this program. That’s the plug and play. We’re working hard on getting the word out. Your agency has been helpful with that, in learning how to do that. That’s the biggest organizational challenge I’d say we’re facing.

Lyn Wineman
Oh, fantastic. Thanks for that shout out there. But yes, that tension is an interesting thing. I have to say, I just finished reading a book. I’m on a journey this year to read 60 books by the end of the year. I just… I’m on 50 right now. But I just read a book called Build An A Team and it talks about that balance of encouragement in a work culture, but also the tension. Because just that right amount of tension or stress really engages top level people and gets them to the next place. I think that’s an interesting, interesting topic. Noah, what advice do you have for people out there who aspire to lead positive change? Because I think most of the people listening to us are people who want to make a difference in the world.

Noah Teitelbaum
Well, I’ll offer some advice, but I’d be more interested in someone reaching out to me and having an online coffee. The things that have been helpful to me, two things come to mind. One is to find what people actually need and work on solving that problem. It’s sort of one of those things it’s hard to disagree with. When someone says, “Well, let’s keep our focus on the children.” But it actually is easy to work on building programs and products that we think are good, but people don’t actually need. And I guess the second thing relates a lot to that, which is something I learned at the last for-profit. Did this great training with Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden, they wrote the book Lean UX, about lean product development, which we really took and applied many different places. And the central idea that I took away from that is to ask as often as possible, “What’s the most important thing to learn next and what’s the fastest, cheapest way that we can learn that?”

Noah Teitelbaum
I love that set of questions as an organizing principle, because we’re always just trying to learn something. If you want to keep your organization improving, maybe some don’t but if you do, that’s a great way to do it. What do we want to learn? And then it’s so easy to just pour a bunch of your time and money into something that just doesn’t pay off. So, “Oh, I want to make a video series.” Just make one and see if people click on it or put a button on our website just to see if people click on it. And then say, “Oh, you’re welcome for the waiting. Those kind of moves. I just found that so useful because it’s so frustrating to have worked for months on something and then nobody wants it.

Lyn Wineman
Yes. I love that. I’m a huge proponent of start small and test and then evolve, optimize, get bigger, start small and test. Working forever and having that big ta-da, I mean, it can be great and sometimes it’s the right thing to do, but when you’re in an entrepreneurial environment like you are, and like I am, being lean and building on things is really, really important. Noah you’ve given us lots of great information and I’m really interested to hear your answer to the next question, because I love motivational quotes and I know that you don’t like woo, woo things. I read that on your website, but I do love motivational quotes. I’m curious, could you give us in your own words, some words of wisdom?

Noah Teitelbaum
Find a problem that you will enjoy fixing.

Lyn Wineman
Oh, nice.

Noah Teitelbaum
And for me, that comes from when I was a teacher. People in New York City, there’s lots of people in finance, people making a lot more money, and they would say, “It must be so nice to really be able to just give and know your work matters. It was so annoying because that only goes so far. How can you think about all the lives you’re changing if you don’t enjoy it? You’re just not going to be able to keep it up, and then you’re going to get bitter. I had to leave teaching in the classroom, there were parts that I loved, it didn’t really fit me as well as I thought it would. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

Lyn Wineman
Great advice. Honestly, every high school student out there that’s thinking about what they are going to do next and starting on their career path, I think that’s awesome advice. I have to ask you just one question about marketing because I’m a marketing person. What advice do you have for other change-makers, entrepreneurs out there to help them with their marketing, advertising or branding?

Noah Teitelbaum
One thing that I actually learned from you is to have a tagline.

Lyn Wineman
Great. That is good advice. That’s really good advice.

Noah Teitelbaum
I had not thought of that. I had a board meeting work on that. And I think the work of figuring out the tagline is really good. Because the mission statement’s nice and you’ve got to have that somewhere, but that process of getting the tagline, I have a feeling that’s really going to crystallize things and help us rally. With our internal tagline, it’s great SEL for the C plus teacher, which is not what we’re outting on our website.

Lyn Wineman
No, that’s not going to do it for you, I’m pretty sure.

Noah Teitelbaum
But we’ll get back to the product development. That’s one thing and the other is if you’re small, having wing-ding customer service because if you don’t have your small group of customers fanatical about you, it’s just not going to work out. And they’re also going to teach you what you need to do. So, having coffee and a talk with people that you’re serving and they’ll help guide you.

Lyn Wineman
That’s wonderful. Both of those great things. I would agree 100%. You mentioned earlier, the virtual coffees. Do you think after the pandemic is over and we’re done social distancing, do you think we’ll still have virtual coffees with people or will we return to coffee shops?

Noah Teitelbaum
Oh, I mean I miss coffee shops, but I think that we’re all getting very good at this, even though we’re a little irked out on it.

Lyn Wineman
Maybe, maybe.

Noah Teitelbaum
We’re all learning how to do this.

Lyn Wineman
I think so too. It’s fun to have coffee with somebody that’s far away from you. Right? I’m really connecting with friends and relatives that maybe in the past, I would’ve thought, “That’d be weird to have a virtual coffee with my friend in Chicago”, but now I can do that and it’s kind of cool. Noah, this has been really informative, really great. I actually appreciate teachers even now more than I did 20 minutes ago. For people who are listening who would like to learn more about the work of Empowering Education, how can they find out more about you?

Noah Teitelbaum
Well, our website, hopefully, is very useful for that. EmpoweringEducation.org, if you go there and you’re a teacher, or a counselor or a parent, there is a free trial you can do for a couple weeks and buy a bunch of the lessons. And then, I’m so excited that we also have a book. If you go to wherever you buy books and look up Munchy and Jumpy Tales, you will find some of our children’s stories. You will sort of learn a bit about my kids, I think, because they helped write them.

Lyn Wineman
That’s awesome. Tell me the name of the book again. Munchy and Jumpy Tales.

Noah Teitelbaum
Munchy and Jumpy Tales. Volume one. We don’t have Volume two out yet. We’re waiting to see in the spirit of “Let’s make sure first.” We’re waiting to see but we have them ready. They’re just a lot of work we’ve got to make sure.

Lyn Wineman
That is fantastic. Noah, you have such an interesting story, and I can see how kids and teachers would benefit from what you’re doing. So, thank you so much for sharing your story and your time today.

Noah Teitelbaum
Thank you.

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